Grounding ‘Vertigo’

1958 film sheds light on San Francisco at BAM/PFA showing

Paramount Pictures/Courtesy

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British-born director Alfred Hitchcock was no stranger to California’s golden coast: His American debut “Rebecca” included footage shot in Monterey, the 1943 sleeper hit “Shadow of a Doubt” was filmed in Santa Rosa and the famous avian thriller “The Birds” took place entirely in the cozy community of Bodega Bay. But it was his inspired portrayal of San Francisco — brooding, mysterious, deeply stylized and splashed with Technicolor — that truly encapsulated Hitchcock’s artistic infatuation with Northern California through the release of 1958’s “Vertigo.”

In honor of this famous collaboration between Hitchcock and the Bay Area, the Pacific Film Archive conducted a special screening of the psychological pulse-pounder with a rarely seen IB tech print that would have been one of the originals seen in multiplexes across the nation when it first premiered. In attendance was UC Berkeley alumnus and author Doug Cunningham, who co-wrote and edited “The San Francisco of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo: Place, Pilgrimage, and Commemoration.”

“‘Vertigo’ is so complex in so many ways that it’s a film that you can return to over and over again and reread in different ways each time,” Cunningham said on why he chose this film in particular for its relation to San Francisco. “And it’s this complexity plus my love for the city of San Francisco itself and the way in which San Francisco is woven into the storyline of ‘Vertigo’ that was very fascinating to me. The film opens up San Francisco to us just as San Francisco opens up ‘Vertigo’ to us.”

Some of the staple San Francisco landmarks in the film include Mission Dolores, the Palace of the Legion of Honor in the Presidio and, of course, the Golden Gate Bridge, under which lead actors Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak share their passionate first kiss. Whereas in real life these locations can be sunny and filled with wide-eyed tourists taking photos, Hitchcock presents them as crime scenes. Ominous cloud cover and a feeling of desertion within the Bay Area scenery emphasize the suspicion of Stewart’s Detective John “Scottie” Ferguson while Hitchcock’s keen eye uses the city as a mirror for the character’s dark secrets.

“Every one of the places that is visited inside the film has a history of its own,” explained Cunningham. “And when you learn more about the history of those places, you learn more about ‘Vertigo,’ the motivations of the characters and why these particular locations are being used. “I don’t think that’s necessarily true for a lot of films … ‘Vertigo’ really is the film that does it the best.”

Cunningham urges fans of the film to take advantage of the San Francisco “Vertigo” tour, that was specifically designed to reveal the several parts of the city which were showcased in what is widely considered Hitchcock’s visual masterpiece. Over the years, many of these places have been shut down or dramatically altered, so it is important to see them while they’re still around.

But this isn’t the only reason that a screening of “Vertigo” at the PFA was relevant. In addition to the currently running retrospective series “Alfred Hitchcock: The Shape of Suspense” (ending April 24), “Vertigo” was recently named by a poll in the prestigious British film magazine Sight and Sound as the greatest movie of all time. This was rather surprising, as it trumped the longstanding “Citizen Kane” for the No. 1 spot.
Whether or not this is the result of a possible British-bias, it’s inarguable that “Vertigo” earns first place as the greatest film to immortalize San Francisco.

Whether or not this is the result of a possible British-bias, it’s inarguable that “Vertigo” earns first place as the greatest film to immortalize San Francisco.

Contact Ryan Koehn at [email protected].